I received an email recently from a frustrated reader complaining that the 2024 presidential election was shaping up to be an unsatisfying do-over featuring two familiar and unappealing candidates.
It’s a complaint I’ve heard before: President Biden and Donald Trump are too old. Trump’s too crazy and irresponsible; Biden’s too mild and ineffectual. Neither will compromise; neither is competent. They encourage government dysfunction and polarization. Why, oh why, don’t we have better choices?
Then, suddenly, just a few days later, there was another message in my inbox offering a seeming solution: No Labels, the centrist political organization that proselytizes on behalf of bipartisanship and ending gridlock, says it, too, is worried about the candidates and has come up with an “insurance” plan that may provide relief.
The group is working to secure a place on the ballots of all 50 states for the 2024 general election, just in case the race offers only a Trump-Biden rematch or some other dismal, unsatisfying pairing. If that happens, the group would run a third-party alternative ticket — one Democrat and one Republican who would promise to work together to rescue the U.S. from paralysis and extremism.
No Labels has so far secured ballot spots in Arizona, Colorado, Oregon and Alaska and is getting to work on Florida, North Carolina and Nevada. The organization’s leaders were in New York in mid-May raising funds toward the $70 million they think they’ll need for their ballot efforts.
Founded by longtime Democratic fundraiser Nancy Jacobson and former Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, among others, No Labels promises choice! Compromise! An end to toxic bitterness! It says it represents the “common sense majority” that wants to end extremist politics and craves “unity and cooperation.”
Sounds great, right? A swift kick in the pants to politics as usual.
But don’t be fooled.
A third-party candidacy is a shiny object, a bright bauble that is superficially appealing. But it’s actually the last thing we need.
And by “we” I mean the sensible, still sane portion of the electorate (Democrats and Republicans alike) that wants to ensure above all that Donald Trump or some other truly extremist anti-democracy candidate doesn’t become president again.
Some Democrats who had ties to No Labels have realized that the alternative-ticket plan is a bad idea, and have said so publicly in the last few days.
“No Labels is wasting time, energy and money on a bizarre effort that confuses and divides voters, and has one obvious outcome — re-electing Donald Trump as president,” said Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) last week.
At the top of the No Labels wish list for a possible unity ticket is, reportedly, Sen. Joe Manchin, the conservative Democrat from West Virginia whose swing-vote status has caused his party so much agita in recent years.
No Labels hasn’t made a firm decision yet whether to go forward, and Manchin hasn’t officially agreed to be the party’s presidential candidate if it does. Manchin coyly told the Washington Post: “I don’t rule myself in and I don’t rule myself out.”
But either way, Americans should put out of their heads the crazy notion that Manchin or any third-party candidate would be a panacea.
There’s nothing wrong with third parties in theory. The two major parties don’t have a God-given right to a clear field. If another H. Ross Perot or Eldridge Cleaver or John Anderson or Henry A. Wallace or Strom Thurmond or George Wallace or Ralph Nader thinks they have something to offer, they’re within their constitutional rights to try, as all those guys did.
And if Americans are unhappy with the major party candidates, they have the right to cast protest votes.
But let’s be clear: That’s what this would be — a protest vote. Third-party candidates don’t win. They haven’t in the past and they won’t in 2024.
What they can do is reshape elections if they get enough votes. And in this case there’s a good chance they’d reshape it in Trump’s favor (or Ron DeSantis’ or whoever becomes the Republican candidate).
Remember the alternative parties in the 2016 election? Hillary Clinton might have won but for the 7.8 million people who voted for Green Party and Libertarian Party candidates.
Or cast your mind back to 2000, when Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader won 97,000 votes in Florida, most of which would likely have gone to Democrat Al Gore had Nader not run. In the end, Gore lost the state — and thereby the White House — to George W. Bush by only 537 votes.
It’s not absolutely certain that a No Labels candidate would benefit the Republicans more than the Democrats in 2024; No Labels rejects that assumption. But it’s likely. For one thing, if a third-party candidate succeeded at winning any electoral college votes, it could make it impossible for either of the major party candidates to win the needed 270 electoral vote majority. That would throw the race into the House of Representatives, where the GOP dominates.
And even if the third-party candidate didn’t win electoral votes but just drained votes from the major party candidates, that would still be more likely to benefit Trump than Biden (assuming Trump is the candidate).
Norman Ornstein, an emeritus scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, explains it this way: To beat Trump, Biden needs to win not just Democratic base voters but also moderate Democrats and independents and Republicans who would ordinarily vote for one of their own but can’t bring themselves to vote for Trump or some other extremist.
That won’t happen if their votes are siphoned off by, say, Manchin.
Voting for a third-party candidate is an OK strategy if you really don’t see much difference between the major-party candidates and want to register a protest.
But voters who feel that way about a Trump-Biden race need to face reality. The notion that Biden and Trump are comparable “extremists,” one from the left and one from the right, is an outrageous and dangerous untruth.
There can be only one priority in 2024 if Trump is a candidate: making sure the country’s fate is not put back into the hands of a man already proved to be reckless, undemocratic, dishonest, self-dealing and supportive of violence.